You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu'ot for the LORD, your God. -Deuteronomy 16:9-10
Last week, our congregation had our annual community Passover Seder. As always, it was a wonderful time and is still in my heart on this last day of the week of Unleavened Bread. Of course, Passover, among other things, starts the beginning of the 50 days of Counting the Omer. Originally, this was the period of time between the Children of Israel leaving slavery in Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai 49 days later, by the Almighty Himself. The counting period is considered to have been a time of spiritual cleansing for the Children of Israel in preparation for receiving the Torah of God.
Since that time, the period of Counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot has a similar function in Judaism. Actually, the preparation for Passover itself is a time to clean out the "hametz"; leaven or sin in our lives, so Jews prepare their souls to break with the sins of the past and dedicate the coming year to drawing closer to God. Passover also "starts the clock" of the seven weeks (also why Shavuot is called "The Festival of Weeks") of Omer counting and the anticipation of Shavuot, which is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
The meaning of the Torah for observant Jewish people goes well beyond what the Bible typically means to the Evangelical Church (which is not to say that the church doesn't highly regard the Bible). It's not "just" considered the Word of God. Jews consider the Torah as having a spiritual and mystical "life" beyond the printed word. In a sense, they believe that the world was created for the sake of Torah and that if the Jews had rejected Torah at Sinai, all of Creation would have been undone. Torah is also considered the means by which God created the Universe and everything in it. Torah is the guide to Holy living, the path to wisdom, and the means to draw nearer to God. Torah scholars are considered on a higher spiritual level and closer to the Creator because of their study, and Torah study and worship of God are considered the same thing.
I'm providing this context to communicate the incredible importance that the giving of the Torah has to the Jewish people. That means the Counting of Omer is a time of tremendous anticipation. It's like knowing the most important event in your life will happen 50 days from now. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event that will change you forever. Naturally, during that 50 days, it will be all you can think and talk about, and it stands to reason you'd want to spend those 50 days getting as ready as possible for this exceptionally important moment.
That's what the Counting of the Omer is. A period of intense preparation for an encounter with God. It's a countdown to the day when you will receive the most important gift in the world from the Creator of the world. But what does this have to do with Christianity?
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (languages) as the Spirit enabled them. -Acts 2:1-4 (NIV)
The festival of Shavu'ot arrived, and the believers all gathered together in one place. Suddenly there came a sound from the sky like the roar of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire, which separated and came to rest on each one of them. They were all filled with the Ruach HaKodesh and began to talk in different languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. -Acts 2:1-4 (CJB)
Also in obedience of the commandments, the Disciples would have been counting the Omer, just as their forefathers had done for thousands of years. The crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus) on the threshold of Passover and his subsequent resurrection and ascension wouldn't have done anything to change that. Certainly, there's nothing in the Bible that records Yeshua saying to not count the Omer that year and that "all bets were off", so to speak.
So here you have a group of Jews, who have come to faith in Yeshua as the risen Messiah. They have gone through 49 days of counting, and are now gathered together for the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah. The giving of Torah is the most important and binding event in the lives of every Jew in existence, past, present, and future (it was the reason why Acts 2 records that there were Jews in Jerusalem from all over the diaspora, and why they understood the disciples when they were speaking in different languages; the languages of the nations they lived in). With the stage set, God does something incredible; He gives another gift, this time, the Holy Spirit to dwell within the disciples and to specifically empower them to begin the mission assigned to them by their Master and Messiah, Yeshua at the end of the book of Matthew.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." -Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)The events in Matthew 28 and Acts 2 go hand in hand. Matthew 28 defines the assignment and Acts 2 provides the tools to accomplish the assignment. It wasn't that the Holy Spirit didn't connect to faithful and righteous people before that time. After all, consider the Prophets and, at the end of Exodus when the Shekinah; the Glory of God, descends onto and into the Tabernacle in the desert, the Talmud states that at that moment, each Jew was to consider that a small piece of the Shekinah was dwelling in their individual hearts. I know that Christianity makes a distinction between the Spirit dwelling "on" vs. "in", but why would God do that? The Spirit is the Spirit. Why would all righteous people be considered "second hand (spiritual) citizens" prior to the coming of the Messiah?
The other and primary connection that needs to be understood is the link between Exodus 20 and Acts 2; the giving of Torah and the giving of the Spirit. I don't believe that, in a created universe, there is such a thing as coincidence; certainly not on the level of Shavuot and Pentecost "just happening" to be on the same day. Therefore, it fulfills the plan of God that these two events be connected. On a larger stage, perhaps the giving of the Spirit enables us to fully implement, not only the Matthew 28 directive, but the Torah as well.
Does that mean, in essence, these two events are the same event? If so, or at least if they are intimately connected, it has incredible implications in the life of every believer in Yeshua (that is, the life of every Christian). What would have been assumed by the Jewish Disciples is considered revolutionary to we 21st Century Gentile believers. 1st Century Jews wouldn't have batted an eye at the thought of obeying the Torah commands. They were taught this from childhood. If the Spirit enabled them to more completely obey the commands of God and "The Great Commission" as it is called by the Church, then so much the better. But what about us?
If the Spirit enables the modern Church to continue the commandment of Jesus to "go and make disciples of all nations", that's completely acceptable and understood (as long as you understand that the terms "convert" and disciple" aren't synonyms). However, understanding that these two events and concepts are also fused with the giving of Torah at Sinai and the enabling to "keep Torah", is likely a stunning revelation to a non-Jewish believing audience. There is much debate over how a Gentile disciple of the Master is to "keep the Torah" vs. the obligation of the Jewish people to the commandments, but given the undeniable link between Shavuot and Pentecost, I can't see any reason why a Christian shouldn't count the Omer.
In other words, given all of my prior statements about why it is so important for observant Jews, to this day, to count the Omer, and prepare themselves for a "close encounter" with God, if Christians believe that the giving of the Spirit is also a "close encounter", then why not count the Omer, too?
He one who is testifying to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon! Amen! Come, Lord Yeshua! May the grace of the Lord Yeshua be with all! -Revelation 22:20-21 (CJB)A slightly different version of this article was originally published at the Congregation Shema Yisrael blog. You can find a related article on the same blog called Of Matzah, Bagels, and Omer.
The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.